Do recruitment fairs still work in the new online Business School admissions landscape?

Recruitment fairs for prospective candidates have long held a command over Business Schools when it comes to accessing students. But are we now seeing repercussions for an admissions ecosystem that was already starting to change pre-Covid-19? Molly Innes investigates

Business School admissions teams have long relied on the recruitment (or admissions) fairs as an important avenue for attracting prospective candidates, travelling around the world to take up spots in crowded halls and network with students. But Covid-19 put a stop to that.

Many of these fairs moved online in early 2020, leaving many Schools to question whether the model still works, and if it’s worth stretching their budgets for a virtual room in an online admissions fair, where the number of attendees in some rooms can reportedly be as low as zero.

This article seeks to find out how industry insiders have dealt with problems such as low attendance, unsociable hours, and budget cuts, as well as how it’s changed their approach to admissions.

Do virtual admissions fairs work?

Recruitment fair companies were thrown into flux when the pandemic hit. They were forced to change their setups rapidly in time for the next round of admissions events. Petia Whitmore, Founder of My MBA Path, was Managing Director of The MBA Tour when Covid-19 hit – a role she left at the end of 2020. The MBA Tour is one of many recruitment fair providers – others include QS and Access MBA – that, pre-pandemic, held large in-person events across the world. But Whitmore says that she’d been encouraging the board at The MBA Tour to start providing more online events even before the pandemic.  

‘There’s nothing like a pandemic to force us to face the fact that the product needs to change,’ Whitmore says of the early days of Covid-19 lockdowns and shifting the recruitment model.

At the start of the pandemic, Schools had little choice but to sign up for online admissions events. It was ride the wave or be left behind.

‘It was a crucial time for Business School admissions to make sure we weren’t losing contact with students,’ says Kelly Sugrue, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Brandeis International Business School. ‘Fortunately, for most Business Schools, it was after what we would typically consider to be our recruiting season when fairs would be taking place. We were at the tail end of our cycle, and more trying to stay engaged with potential candidates.’

But that wasn’t the experience for all Schools. While many had long attended physical admissions fairs, when the format moved online, some were left wondering whether it worked at all. ‘The very first iterations of all of the virtual fairs sucked. All of them,’ says Lawrence Mur’ray II, Senior Assistant Dean at Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University. ‘Many tried to take the experience of an in-person event and just translate it right into a virtual event, and that doesn’t work.’

Alongside that, access to information on demand means that prospective candidates have had alternative ways of interacting with their target Schools for a while. And now that the initial shock has subsided and Business Schools are in the swing of a second full recruitment cycle since Covid-19 began, some are thinking twice about virtual admissions fairs.

Access vs. effectiveness: fairs dividing opinion

‘The problem with the fairs was that they were already declining in interest,’ says Sugrue, who points towards a rise in prospective candidates finding information online and engaging with Schools directly, rather than through a third-party vendor.

Sugrue adds that schools are now more wary of the format: ‘They might have tried it out of habit last year not knowing how else they would reach students, but I think unfortunately the fairs were not productive in that sense.’

However, there are mixed opinions across the Business School admissions landscape. Barbara Coward, MBA admissions consultant and one of LinkedIn’s top 10 voices in education for 2020, says that while the students she works with aren’t necessarily gearing up for recruitment fairs, they do serve a strong purpose. ‘For the Schools, fairs can help them find more talent, have more touch points, and go to areas they might not usually have had access to,’ she says. ‘In-person fairs would go to the big cities, but not the smaller towns. As a result, somebody from Salzburg, for example, who wants to do an MBA but might not want to travel to a big city for an event, has easier access online. I do think it’s a way to uncover, discover, and tap into more talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.’

Barbara’s comment points to the wider benefit of virtual fairs: accessibility. Although the virtual fair model might not be 100% effective for all Schools, from a candidate perspective it opens up the possibility of interacting with Schools they previously wouldn’t have had access to.

In 2020, the MBA Tour ran 41 virtual events in the summer and fall season, with 28,000 registrations and 11,000 attendees. ‘Because geographical travel limitations no longer existed, candidates could attend from anywhere in the world, allowing Schools to meet more candidates and a richer diversity of candidates at a single event,’ says Danielle Boland, current Managing Director of The MBA Tour.

But it hasn’t always been straightforward for some schools to secure attendees for their individual rooms at virtual recruitment fairs. ‘I found that the bigger-branded Schools’ online rooms were always packed, whereas Schools perhaps not as well recognised, but potentially a good fit for certain candidates, were left empty for longer periods of time,’ one Business School professional wishing to remain anonymous confided.

Measuring the ROI of an admissions fair

For the admissions team at Maastricht School of Management (MSM), the move online gave an opportunity to stay in contact with candidates in a way that many hadn’t experienced before – but that doesn’t mean all channels were effective. ‘From our end, we did specific zoom meetings and kept in regular contact with students that were already in the pipeline,’ says Inka Diddens, Recruitment Officer at MSM. ‘The feedback we got from them was that they really appreciated us taking their worries away.’

But when it comes to ‘early-funnel’ prospective candidates, MSM has found the process of online events trickier to navigate. ‘It’s been more challenging. With specific markets, we noticed things like a worse internet connection, which means we can’t do video calls, or there are delays,’ says Diddens, before adding: ‘There have been no shows too, more no shows than when we were face-to-face. That candidates don’t show up, it’s just a different commitment from their side.’

While the candidates’ approach may be different, the costs aren’t necessarily lower for an online event, leaving some admissions staff to question the return on investment (ROI) for them, when compared to an in-person event.

‘We were looking at fall [autumn] events and in some cases they were more expensive than they’d previously been in person,” said Sugrue. ‘I found it astounding, especially when they were less productive in terms of candidate lead generation.’

Rodrigo Malta, Managing Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions at McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, says the potential ROI and expectations of an online fair were not the same as that of an in-person event for his School. ‘Our goals for virtual affairs were different. So for us, we had the ROI we expected, because we didn’t expect the same type of event,’ he says.

‘There were some that were poorly attended, and a waste of time, but there were some virtual fairs where we had a strong ROI, but it was a different kind of ROI. It was top of the funnel, building leads versus the deeper engagement and relationship building which we’d seen in the past.’

Navigating the timezone problem

In-person fairs put everyone in the same physical space, but virtual events throw up an entirely new challenge for both prospective candidates and admissions staff – timezones. Navigating this issue when staff and students are dialling in from around the world has been a serious issue for some.

One prospective candidate, Cecilia, an engineering student in Argentina, found that balancing her studies while looking to join online events was unmanageable. ‘I found they didn’t match my timezone when I was looking,’ she says – although it is worth noting that Cecilia was early in the admissions pipeline.

Schools struggled with timezone problems too, with admissions staff often having to wake up exceptionally early or be active late at night, hours potentially conducive to mental health and burnout issues among staff. ‘We had events that were at one o’clock in the morning; it was not good.’ says Mur’ray. However, Mur’ray feels that candidate engagement was improved with his School’s own events: ‘I think most of the prospective candidates appreciated the fact that we could now specialise or tailor our activities to their interests.’ The same was the case for MSM, which reports being able to keep in contact with onboarding candidates in a much more personal way than they’d had the allowance for previously.

Whitmore, meanwhile, suggests that the timezone issue isn’t much different from when recruiters are on the road for in-person events. ‘You work mornings and evenings, you’re up at 3am to catch a flight, from Beijing to Shanghai for example, you work weekends because the events are very often on weekends, or evenings when they’re in person because you’re not going to do them in the middle of the day when the candidates are at work,’ she says.

There are also ways around timezone differences. ‘We find that online events we hold or participate in are best when they work for multiple timezones,’ says Sara Vanos, Marketing Director for MBA Programmes at HEC Paris.  

Schools running their own events

Recruitment fairs pre-Covid-19 offered Schools the chance to connect with a range of students, with a clearer indication of who would be present from a candidate perspective. There was also increased opportunity for candidate interaction – if a candidate was queuing for one School’s stand, admissions staff at different desks had a chance to grab their attention while they were waiting.

However, Business Schools have now been running more of their own events as a way to ensure they’re both in contact with candidates across the funnel, and able to claw back some of their budget which goes on paying fees to a third-party vendor. ‘Budgets were already being slashed even before Covid-19, so this accelerated these changes,’ says Mur’ray, adding that his School has seen a positive response from running its own events. ‘The legacy vendors still tried to make it the same as in person. But when we host our own events, we don’t have to do that at all.’ The result, according to Mur’ray, is that its incoming MBA intake is more international than it was before the pandemic.  

Online events run by Schools have included everything from one-to-one meetings with candidates, to wider talks and tailored webinars; Schools have had the power to leverage their in-house capabilities and experiment more, at a lower cost.

‘We’ve definitely done less partner events, because we’re able to host our own virtual events pretty easily, and are fortunate to have a pretty robust prospective funnel,’ says Malta. ‘We looked to partner events to add to our top-of-funnel efforts and complement leads we didn’t necessarily have. We did less partner events, but when we did them, they were very targeted,’ he added.

It’s tricky to see where the future is headed for online Business School recruitment, and what impact it will have further down the line. The pandemic upturned the sector, and perhaps we are now seeing the repercussions.

‘Due to the overwhelming success of The MBA Tour’s virtual events in 2020 (and in response to travel restrictions), we have continued to offer the virtual series in 2021 and expect it to remain a critical part of our offerings into 2022 and beyond,’ Boland says.

But will Schools continue to attend now they see what they can achieve in-house? ‘We don’t need them like we did before,’ suggests Mur’ray.

Molly Innes is currently a Features Writer at Little Black Book. She previously worked at Business Insider, and at BusinessBecause covering MBAs and business education. Her freelance work includes features for admissions platform, Libereka, and the Guardian

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